Tag Archives: charlie chaplin

Post-“Modern Times”

As you may have noticed, “Deadwrite’s Dailies” has been something of a misnomer of late.

I’ve not taken a dirt nap or anything, it’s just that the summer got crazy busy. During the last couple of months, I got deluged finishing up my second book (with co-writer Marc Wanamaker), co-hosting a new local television show, as well as leading tours and teaching classes on film history in the Santa Clarita Valley. On top of it all, Kimi and I started back on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank doing “real jobs.”

That being said, I found myself with a day off today and wanted to use the time to say “hello” and to congratulate everyone for being alive to celebrate the palindromic date of 11/02/2011.

Today, I would like to update everyone on our efforts to memorialize the spot of the final scene from Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times.” This article was originally posted on August 30, 2010.

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Seventy-five years ago today, the Silent Era ended.

The ending came with little fanfare on Sierra Highway near Agua Dulce, California. The only people on-site to witness the finale were the stars and crew of the film Modern Times, who were there to film the iconic final scene.

Silent films had been on life-support for nearly a decade by the time that Charlie Chaplin, one of the greatest of the Silent Era clowns, chose to make Modern Times – a film about the dehumanizing effects of big business on workers. Sound first appeared in a Hollywood feature in 1926’s Don Juan, which had a backing orchestra and sound effects synced to the film. Talkies debuted a year later with The Jazz Singer, and the days of the silent film were officially numbered.

The change was a traumatic one for Hollywood, and hundreds of careers ended abruptly. Chaplin had built a tremendously successful career with a pantomime character called The Little Tramp and was in no hurry to have him talk. By 1935, he was the last person in Hollywood with the resources to ignore the transition to sound, but he realized the time had at last come to have the character speak.

Modern Times is a transitional film in that almost all of the dialogue is silent, yet there are occasional spoken voices and sound effects. The Little Tramp remains silent for most of the film, but when it comes time for him to talk, Chaplin actually has him sing.

On August 30, 1935, when the cast and crew shot the final scene where Chaplin and his co-star Paulette Goddard walk off into the sunset, (figuratively at least, the scene was set at dawn) they must have sensed they were at the end of an era; it was unlikely that even the great Charlie Chaplin could pull off another silent film. What remained to be seen was whether or not the Little Tramp character would continue.

The answer was no. Chaplin felt the magic of the character disappeared once his voice was heard and chose to retire him.

(A similar character did appear in Chaplin’s next film, The Great Dictator, but the Tramp was transformed into a European Jewish barber for this film. After that, the character never again appeared on screen.)

Modern Times was Chaplin’s biggest gamble and turned out to be one of his greatest successes. Recently, the American Film Institute voted it onto its top 100 American Films list at #81.

I am currently working with Los Angeles County and Santa Clarita city officials to erect a commemorative plaque at the site of the final scene next February to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the film’s release.

Stay tuned for updates on our progress!

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THIS JUST IN: In February 2011 Kimi and I helped create and host the first annual ChaplinFest in Newhall, California. During that festival, Tippi Hedren and Leonard Maltin helped us unveil a beautiful black marble monument commemorating the final scene of “Modern Times.” The monument was created by the wonderful couple of Charles and Maria Sotelo of High Desert Monuments in Hesperia, California. These kind and patient people believed so strongly in our project that they created the monument for us without asking for a dime up front. I am very happy to report that after several months of fundraising, the Sotelos are now paid in full! We thank everyone who contributed to this worthy cause. (We will still need to raise funds for the base and other associated costs.)

The next phase of the project calls for us to get the monument placed at the site of the final scene (which looks much the same today as it did in 1935). We are hoping to place it during the week of August 30, 2012, the 77th anniversary of the filming of the scene. We’ll keep you in the loop on how our plans progress.

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Cinema’s Oldest “Baby” – Jack Totheroh 1914 – 2011

(Today I thank the 50,152 bold time travelers who have stopped by for a peek at Deadwrite’s Dailies over the past eleven months – 38,000 since January. Thank you all for helping us surpass this milestone. – Deadwrite.

We debut a new background today which we hope is easier on the eyes. It also gives a better view of the header, which in case you were wondering, was taken from a collage crafted a couple of years back using reprints of old film posters.)

You meet the greatest people through your passions.

Like Jack Totheroh, who we met because we love Charlie Chaplin, who was the employer of Jack’s father for 40 years.

I am sad to report that Jack passed away recently. He was a teacher, a husband, a father, a tremendous citizen, an athlete, an incredibly sweet man – and the holder of the world record for the longest film career in history.

Jack Totheroh began that career way back in 1915, at the ripe old age of nine-months, when he co-starred in The Bachelor’s Baby with “Broncho Billy” Anderson.

Broncho Billy was the world’s first cinema cowboy star, and had a cameraman named Rollie Totheroh who just happened to be Jack’s dad. Rollie was a baseball star who Anderson recruited to be a ringer on the baseball team at his Essanay Studios in the East Bay community of Niles, California. Within a short time, Rollie put down his mitt and picked up a camera and began cranking film at 16 frames per second for the flickers.

Soon after his film debut, Jack’s family moved to Hollywood so that Rollie could start rolling film for Charlie Chaplin – a partnership that would continue for the next 40 years.

As a young boy, Jack appeared in a few shorts for Fox, and then shelved his film career for the next 70 years until 1992 when he appeared in a cameo role in the bio-pic Chaplin, a film about his father’s old boss.

In 2007, Jack was back in Niles appearing in an independent film called Weekend King, which was shot within steps of where The Bachelor’s Baby was shot nine decades earlier. Jack’s 92-year film career earned him a spot in the Guinness Book of Records for having the world’s longest film career.

This tale, while certainly colorful, is only a sidebar to the true story of Jack Totheroh.

After graduating from Hollywood High School, Jack earned his bachelor’s degree in 1940 at Chapman College, where he met his wife Marian, who would be at his side for nearly 70 years. He began teaching in 1941, and moved to Santa Paula four years later, where he would teach generations of students until his retirement in 1984.

Jack and Marian would raise three sons in Santa Paula. It was his son David who informed me yesterday that his father had passed away on May 20th, at the age of 96.

I would never have met this wonderful man had I not fallen in love with Charlie Chaplin’s films as a child. A couple of years ago Kimi and I helped host an evening commemorating the 85th anniversary of the release of Chaplin’s film The Pilgrim, where I met Jack and the rest of the Totheroh family.

It was a tremendous honor for me to meet a man whose father was a member of Chaplin’s troupe.

It was even more of an honor to meet Jack Totheroh himself.

 

(BTW, Kimi and I happened to be at the Autry Center a few weeks ago and saw a clip from a Broncho Billy film that showed a scene where Anderson holds a young baby. We’re trying to find out from the Autry which film this scene was taken from, because The Bachelor’s Baby is thought to be a lost film, but certain scenes may have survived. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that the baby turns out to be Jack Totheroh at nine-months. We’ll let you know what we find out.)

 

 


The Sweet Prince of Pickfair

(Because I am completely immersed in another writing project, Kimi has graciously volunteered to author another day’s post. Thank you, my sweet princess!)

"… An eternal boy … His was a happy life. His rewards were great, his joys many. Now he pillows his head upon his arms, sighs deeply, and sleeps."

(Eulogy delivered by Charlie Chaplin for his best friend, Douglas Fairbanks.)

The impressive crypt of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, is a worthy testament to the glamorous life led by the original “King of Hollywood."

For those who can remember back that far, mention of the name Douglas Fairbanks conjures up images of romantic silent swashbucklers and Hollywood glamour on a grand scale.

Fairbanks’ accomplishments in Hollywood as an actor, director, producer, and screenwriter were legendary, as were his performances in Robin Hood, The Thief of Baghdad, and The Mark of Zorro.

For a time in film’s early era, Douglas Fairbanks was Hollywood.

Born Douglas Elton Ulman in Denver on this date in 1883, Fairbanks’ happy childhood ended at age five, when his alcoholic father abandoned the family. (Watching his father’s descent into alcoholism would inspire Fairbanks to abstain from drinking for most of his life.)

Like many actors of his time, Fairbanks began his career in summer stock as a teenager, and was an instant sensation. He was discovered in Denver by British actor Frederick Warde and offered a spot in his popular acting troupe.

Fairbanks made his Broadway debut in 1902. While in New York, he met and married his first wife, Anna Beth Sully, who gave birth to their son, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., later a major star in his own right.

Fairbanks, Sr.’s career took flight when the family moved to Hollywood in 1915, where he signed a contract at Triangle Pictures with legendary director D.W. Griffith. Within 18 months, he landed a job at Paramount Pictures and was catapulted to stardom, becoming the most popular actor in Hollywood.

His long-time romantic association and marriage to actress Mary Pickford – “America’s Sweetheart” – is the stuff of Hollywood legend.

They met at a party in 1916 and immediately began their love affair. Just one year later, the couple joined Doug’s close friend and associate Charlie Chaplin selling WWI war bonds.

The trio would later team up with D.W. Griffith to form United Artists in 1919, the same year Fairbanks’ divorce from Sully became  final. Fairbanks and Pickford were married the following year, and moved into their well-known Beverly Hills mansion, “Pickfair." They came to be regarded as Hollywood royalty, and Pickfair was the place to see and be seen.

The decade of the 20s was a very good one for Fairbanks, and he was able to solidify his "royalty" status by hosting the very first Academy Awards ceremony.

The 30s witnessed the end of Fairbanks’ career and marriage to Pickford.

Fairbanks died quietly at the home he shared with his third wife, Lady Sylvia Ashley, in Santa Monica in 1939. His last words were, “I’ve never felt better.”

His grave used to say, "Goodnight sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to rest." But with the internment of his son, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., inside the same tomb in 2000, the wording was changed to read, "Goodnight sweet princes."

(If you would like to see Fairbanks’ grave, we’ll be taking our “Newhallywood on Location” class to Hollywood Forever Cemetery for a tour this Saturday. Check the “My Class” tab for details.)


Yesterday in Niles

We turned off Mission Boulevard, passed under a train bridge, rounded a corner – and went a century back in time.

That’s what it feels like going to Niles.

Niles is a 4,000-person small town, completely enveloped by the quarter-million residents of Fremont in Northern California’s East Bay.

The town appears to be hermetically-sealed in a 1910s-era time bubble, with its main street fronted by a row of antique stores that bring out droves of bargain-hunters every weekend.

We only intended to stay long enough to say a quick hello to our good friend Michael McNevin, who is a Niles resident and its chief cheerleader. He is also the greatest musician you’ve never heard of.

We met up for breakfast at “The Nile,” which is decorated in an interesting mixture of ancient Egypt and old railroad town, where we sat in chairs named “Stinky,” “Fuzz,” and “Sweet Lips.”

Down the street from the restaurant a newly-restored train station rests alongside the final stretch of the transcontinental railroad. The day before, the station was seen by millions of online browsers, who saw a short film that was made there by Google to celebrate Charlie Chaplin’s birthday.

It was an appropriate place to honor the great silent film comedian, because Chaplin made a handful of films in Niles in 1915. Although he didn’t particularly like Niles – this is still Charlie’s town.

We discovered Niles a few years ago, thanks to our love of silent films.

Almost a century ago, two men, George Spoor, (the moneyman), and “Broncho Billy” Anderson (the first silent cowboy star), got together and created Essanay Studios in Niles (named after S & A, their initials). They signed the papers that created the studio near where Stinky, Fuzz, and Sweet Lips sit today.

Niles was the place where Chaplin went to make movies (as well as a lot more money), after spending his first year in films at Hollywood’s Keystone Studios.

We had intended to depart after breakfast, but Niles has a way of diverting you in the nicest possible way, by the nicest people. Before we could leave town, Michael hooked us up with some complementary tickets on the Niles Canyon Railway which runs along the creek in the scenic canyon between Niles and the tiny village of Sunol. Just because.

During our 15-minute stop at Sunol, we walked across the street to a saloon called Bosco’s Bones and Brew, which was named after a dog who was legally elected mayor a few years ago.

We didn’t have time to sit for a beer, but the female bartender – showing Northern-California coolness – filled us a sample for free by setting a glass under a life-sized model of the late pooch and lifting his hind leg.

We rode the train back to Niles, spent a couple of hours browsing through the antique shops, and dropped in on the Essanay Museum to say hello to some friends who we hadn’t seen since they attended our ChaplinFest in February.

We again tried to leave town, but at 7 PM we found ourselves listening to Michael and his friend Patrick McClellan play a concert. Instead of headlining Madison Square Garden, where musicians of their talent should be featured, they performed at Michael’s Mudpuddle Music Shop on Main Street, where the walls are covered with Etch-a-sketch art which Michael creates as visual representations of his story songs.

The 225 square-feet of floor space was packed with wine-swigging friends. We sat by the door, which was a spot where Chaplin once stood for a picture in 1915. All the while, Clancy, the beautiful black lab who is Michael’s constant companion, moved from person-to-person, staying until the love played out, then proceeding on to the next round of pets and scratches.

The main act for the evening was a pair of enormously talented folk singers from Texas named Lynn Adler and Lindy Hearne. We explained to them ahead of time that we would probably have to leave early, as we had a long drive ahead of us.

After their first song, we were hooked, and at our pre-determined time of departure we were powerless to pull ourselves away and ended up staying for the entire two-hour show.

Nearly nine hours after we planned to motor on down the road, we finally left Niles behind. As we headed for the freeway, we passed the spot in Niles Canyon where Chaplin walked off into the sunset at the conclusion of The Tramp, ending his stay in Niles.

Unlike Chaplin, we love Niles, and will be back.

And once again, we’ll undoubtedly stay longer than we plan to.


The First Cowboy Star

He wasn’t from the West and he couldn’t ride a horse, but this didn’t stop Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson from becoming cinema’s first western cowboy hero.

Anderson, born Max Aronson, entered the world on this date in 1880. He was born to a Jewish family in Arkansas and had he been a more successful cotton broker, would most likely have remained there. Instead, he migrated to New York where he became a contract player for Vitagraph Studios.

In 1903, Edwin S. Porter cast Anderson in his landmark 11-minute western, The Great Train Robbery. He was originally meant to play one of the robbers, having lied his way into a tryout by claiming that he was “born in the saddle.” But after falling off his horse he was given other duties, playing three non-riding roles in the film. One of these parts was as a passenger who gets shot in the back, making Anderson one of the very first cinematic murder victims.

The phenomenal success of The Great Train Robbery spurred Anderson to learn to ride and to create his own western films. (The film would launch other cinematic careers as well: the Warner brothers started their empire by exhibiting the The Great Train Robbery throughout mining camps in Ohio and Pennsylvania.)

He partnered with moneyman George Spoor to create Essanay Studios, which was named from the “S and A” initials of Spoor and Anderson. Essanay set up shop in Chicago, but Anderson took a production team to California to shoot westerns based around a character named Broncho Billy that he had read about in a magazine. Anderson would star in over 375 Broncho Billy films between 1908 and 1915, making him the first cowboy western star.

In 1912, Anderson set up his own branch of Essanay in the East Bay town of Niles, California (today a district of Fremont). Essanay cranked out hundreds of westerns and Snakeville comedies there over the next few years.

Anderson was able to pull off a coup in 1914 when he hired Charlie Chaplin away from Keystone Studios to make films for Essanay in Chicago and Niles. The arrangement only lasted a year, and was an unpleasant one for all the parties concerned, especially Spoor, who bristled at Chaplin’s eye-bulging salary of $1250 per week.

In spite of this, Chaplin was able to make his first true classic in Niles called The Tramp, wherein his already established little tramp character was seen as more sympathetic and less frenetic than from his earlier Keystone films.

When Chaplin left Essanay for greener pastures, he took the fortunes of the studio with him. Soon afterwards, the Niles studio was boarded up, and Anderson sold his remaining interest in the company as well as his Broncho Billy character to Spoor.

Anderson produced films for the next 40 years and was awarded a special Academy Award in 1957 honoring his work as a motion picture pioneer.

Broncho Billy Anderson, the cowboy hero who began his career without knowing how to ride a horse, died in 1971.

(In case you’re wondering, Clint Eastwood’s Bronco Billy (1980) wasn’t based on Anderson, although Burt Reynolds’s character in Nickelodeon (1976) does share some similarities with Broncho Billy.)

 


Remember To Drop the “E”

  

It’s about time for Hollywood to pat itself on the back again at the annual Academy Awards show in a couple of weeks, and this year, like most, sees several first-time nominees in the pack.

It must be incredibly exciting to earn a chance at walking away with Hollywood’s highest honor even once.

But can you imagine what it feels like to be nominated for an Oscar 45 times?

Me neither. And in truth only three men in history know this feeling: producer Walt Disney with 59 nominations, and composers John Williams and Alfred Newman who are tied for second-place with 45 nods each.

Alfred Newman, who died on this date in 1970, was for forty years one of the most respected composers in Hollywood. (It’s easy to find yourself adding the middle initial “E” when discussing Alfred Newman, but as any “Mad Man” knows, the “what me worry” character is actually named Alfred E. Neuman.)

Newman composed scores for over 200 films, and took home the Oscar nine times for such works as Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Tin Pan Alley, The Song of Bernadette, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, Call Me Madam, The King and I, and Camelot. Newman was nominated for an Oscar every year between 1938 and 1957 – an incredible streak of twenty years in a row!

Newman was considered to be a musical prodigy from the age of five when he first took up the piano. He soon began playing on the vaudeville circuit and at the age of 20 began a decade-long career playing on Broadway. Newman followed his friend Irving Berlin to Hollywood in 1930 and was soon working with Charlie Chaplin as the musical director on City Lights. By 1940 he was contracted to 20th Century Fox studios where he conducted the famous fanfare, a variation of which (recorded by his son David) still introduces Fox films to this day. While at Fox Newman also created the Newman System, a method of synchronizing scores to films that is still in use.

Newman continued working until 1970, when he concluded his illustrious career by scoring the film Airport. He died on February 17, 1970, exactly one month before his 70th birthday.

Newman left a powerful lasting legacy of music, both on screen and through his family. His brothers Lionel and Emil scored nearly a hundred films between them, and sons David and Thomas, and daughter Maria, have another couple of hundred scoring credits, with ten Oscar nominations for Thomas. Nephew and I Love L.A. composer Randy Newman has also won an Oscar, and grandnephew Joey has a host of scoring credits to his name as well.


Charlot

I remember seeing the film Chaplin for the first time in 1992. I, like most Charlie Chaplin fans worldwide, had been eagerly awaiting opening night since learning about the Robert Downey, Jr. production several months earlier.

I took a friend to the film who knew nothing about Charlie Chaplin more than his iconic image. At the beginning of the movie, Robert Downey, Jr. as Chaplin, enters his dressing room in the Little Tramp’s costume and greasepaint. I remember hearing my friend’s audible gasp when Downey looked into the mirror, pulled off his fake moustache, and wiped the stage makeup from his face, revealing a 25-year-old underneath. Until that moment, my friend had no idea that Chaplin’s aged look was created for the screen. From that moment, a fan was born.

As I pointed out recently, this week marks the 97th anniversary of the “birth” of Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character, known internationally as “Charlot,” which he hastily created for the one-reeler Kid Auto Races at Venice.

I say “hastily created,” but in reality, while the actual costuming of the character was assembled in a rush, the characterization of the homeless little man trying to make his way through life, while keeping his dignity intact, had been percolating in Chaplin’s mind since his days as a street waif in Victorian London.

The Little Tramp would live on until 1936, when Chaplin retired the iconic character at the conclusion of Modern Times.

To kick off the 2011 Santa Clarita Valley ChaplinFest in Newhall this Friday evening, we will be screening Chaplin, which was partly filmed in nearby Fillmore, California.

On hand for the screening will be props used in the film, as well as a visit from David Totheroh, who appeared as his grandfather Rollie’s assistant in the film. (Rollie Totheroh was Chaplin’s cameraman for forty years.)

Incidentally, David’s father Jack, who still lives in the Santa Paula area, recently set a world record for having the longest film career ever, having appeared in a Broncho Billy Anderson film when he was six-months old in 1914, and again a couple of years ago in a movie made in Niles, California.

The screening of Chaplin is intended as a primer for those people who, like my friend back in 1992, have little knowledge of Charlie Chaplin, the man. With any luck, we will be creating some new Chaplin fans that night.

We will recognize them by their gasps when the greasepaint comes off.